Today’s guest post is by Carl R. Weinberg, an adjunct associate professor of history at Indiana University. He is the author of Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I and is currently writing a book entitled Red Dynamite: Creationism, Anticommunism, and Culture Wars in Modern America (under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press).
On Sunday March 29, three days after Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law the by-now widely hated and ridiculed Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (IRFRA), the governor accused his critics of “intolerance.” In a televised interview with George Stephanapolous, Pence said that “there’s a lot of talk about tolerance in this country today having to do with people on the left.” But what about the “avalanche of intolerance” poured out by those very same people on the state of Indiana as a result of the passage of IRFRA? Pence asked. As a pair of columnists wrote in response to Pence, what the governor calls “intolerance” is really just “criticism” of the new law, which was clearly passed to give legal cover for discrimination against gays and lesbians.  Indeed, the furor over IRFRA is yet another indication that there has been a sea-change in attitudes toward support for gay rights, which is a great thing. I’m happy to see Pence and his supporters scrambling.
And yet, the war of words unleashed by critics of IRFRA this past week leaves untouched the assumption that we should be against “intolerance” and for “tolerance.” I have never been a fan of “tolerance.” It is popular these days as a buzzword for those interested in fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia, and Jew-hatred, among others. But as a positive injunction to treat our fellow human beings as we would like to be treated—as in “teach tolerance”—it always seemed inadequate, as if we were being asked to “put up with” other, inferior people. The same goes for the “toleration” of alternative viewpoints, which somehow conjures up for me someone who is always one step away from turning off the toleration switch.
But the problem with “tolerance” goes deeper than this. As I will attempt to demonstrate in the rest of this post, I contend that “tolerance” comes out of a specifically liberal political project that I consider, viewing it from my own Marxist standpoint, as an obstacle to building a revolutionary movement to overcome the evils that “tolerance” aims to address. That is, as long as we live in a dog-eat-dog capitalist society in which a tiny minority of billionaires call the shots—even liberal billionaires are willing to boycott Indiana—we will have no chance of uprooting a range of oppressive relationships that feed on the hierarchy and competition between working people that capitalism inevitably engenders. In this regard, I would contend that Pence and other conservatives are correct to sense that the historical roots of “tolerance” are not politically neutral. Exhibit A for this contention is a document I came across in doing research for my current book manuscript. It is a 1924 speech called “Intolerance” given by Charles A. Ellwood, the then-president of the American Sociological Society.  In a curious way, Ellwood’s speech gave me a whole new reason to dislike “tolerance,” but with a political logic that both conservatives and liberals in Indiana might find objectionable. In the rest of this piece, I analyze the speech and elaborate on my point. I’m very much interested to hear what others think.
Charles A. Ellwood was the intellectual heir of Lester Frank Ward, the progressive, Social Gospel-influenced, botanist, geologist, and reform evolutionary sociologist often considered the “father” of modern American sociology. At the time Ellwood delivered his speech, he was teaching at the University of Missouri. He had weathered conservative attacks on both his evolutionary views and his racial liberalism—he spoke out against the lynching of an African American man that occurred on the Missouri campus. In his speech, Ellwood decried the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan, the widespread popular opposition to teaching evolution, religious “bigotry” and Fundamentalism, and the opposition of big business to progressive education, among others. 
To probe the origins of these problems, as well as their solution, Ellwood used a Spencerian, social-organicist analogy, then the rage in his field. Society was a body whose health depended on a “dynamic” process of “evolutionary readaptation” with its environment, which continually produced a new, ideally fit “equilibrium.” This process, in turn, began with individual members of society expressing dissatisfaction with the current “static” state of affairs. Some of these “variations” in thought were beneficial—but only if they were freely allowed to spread. The key, then, to social and political health, was the free exchange of ideas or “intercommunication.” The repression of new ideas—from the denial of the vote to African Americans to the movement to ban evolution from the schools—interfered with the process of social selection of favorable thought variations. It consequently prevented “sympathetic understanding of individuals and classes.” This, in turn, led to “group disruption,” open conflict, war, and worse. To bring home his point, Ellwood, without ironic intent, quoted former President (and author of the wartime Sedition Act) Woodrow Wilson: “Repression is the seed of revolution.”
Ellwood then went on to illustrate with the case of Soviet Russia. Decades of severe repression by an intolerant Tsarist minority, prior to 1917, he claimed, explained the “destructive and terrible” character of the Bolshevik revolution. (He did not elaborate on the details.) There were also intolerant majorities—such as the white Southern population in the antebellum period, whose intolerance led to repression and a “revolutionary” Civil War. In both cases, “social disaster” replaced “normal social development.” The “remedy” to the problem of “intolerance,” concluded Ellwood, was “the conversion of our people to the scientific attitude.” The true spirit of science, he said, was “its open-mindedness, and so its tolerance.” Infused with this spirit, the American people would let go of their “selfish personal and class interests” and embrace beneficial new ideas. We would have, in the words of businessman Edward Filene, also approvingly quoted by Ellwood, “sane social advance” rather than “revolutionary socialism.”
Charles Ellwood is not much remembered in the early twenty-first century, but I suspect that his ghost is alive and well. How many times have you heard young people express the idea that racism and other forms of oppression result from lack of “communication”? Or as Rodney King more famously phrased it, “Can’t we all just get along?” Indeed, Ellwood’s underlying premise is that there are no fundamental conflicts structurally built into American society. There are no truly opposed class interests. If we adopt an open-minded, neutral, objective “scientific” attitude, the apparent conflicts will be resolved. Thus, in the case of the American Civil War, if the slaveholders and enslaved people had been able to see beyond their “selfish personal and class interests,” war would have been avoided. To make this idea more plausible, Ellwood concocts a mythical commitment by the country’s founding fathers to “religious, political, and racial toleration.” Whatever “toleration” means in this context, it apparently encompassed explicit widespread state bans on Catholics holding elected office; the denial of the vote to women, free African Americans, and many working-class men of all colors; and the protection of the institution of slavery.
Speaking of the founders, Ellwood’s ghost has also intervened in the current attacks on “revisionism” in the teaching of U.S. history. The Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association have ably defended the “revision” of history, on specific points, in textbooks and classrooms. Using the telling example of a surgeon who neglects to read the “revisionist” medical literature, they have worked hard to educate the American public on history as a living, breathing, evolving field. But rather than openly acknowledge the inherently political nature of the act of writing history, they have tended to focus on neutral-sounding disciplinary principles. If enough people will just reject “political partisanship” and adopt the open-minded, “tolerant” mental habits of “historical thinking”—a variation on Ellwood’s “scientific attitude”—then the attacks will stop.  To use a phrase handily employed by Andrew Hartman in his new book on the culture wars, we once again seem to be hiding behind the “cloak of professionalism.”
The specter of Ellwoodism is especially critical in regard to the evolution/creationism controversy, because it appears to be, at its heart, an academic dispute. Surely, spreading a scientific mindset, á la Bill “The Science Guy,” would help the cause. And yet, as Michael Lienesch has shown, the most bitter, sustained, and politically powerful attacks on evolution have been aimed not at biology, but at social scientists and evolution’s alleged implications for “social behavior.” In this view, it is responsible for abortion, homosexuality, Nazism (and in an early era, communism, and all of its “immoral” connotations.) As Lienesch shows, sociologists as a whole embraced “scientific” professional neutrality in response to these kinds of political attacks.  Although I think he neglects the specifically anticommunist dimension, I fully agree that the debate over evolution is, and has always been, about politics.
Not surprisingly, today’s antievolutionists are also anti-“tolerance.” Consider Freedom Guard, a conservative legal outfit that is currently representing young-earth-creationist “ministry” Answers in Genesis (AiG) in its lawsuit against the state of Kentucky, which recently denied AiG the right to participate in a tax-incentive program for its planned Ark Encounter theme park, citing employment discrimination. On its website, Freedom Guard bemoans the increasing attacks on “religion and morality,” as “‘tolerance’ gradually replaces Truth as the ultimate value in America’s postmodern society.” 
But responding to this statement by reflexively affirming “tolerance” would be a mistake. In this regard, talking about the fight against antigay discrimination in Indiana and elsewhere in terms of “tolerance” falsely suggests that the issue can easily be solved within our current system by “sane social advance.” In the hands of Charles Ellwood and his heirs, “tolerance” represents the well-meaning but ultimately illusory liberal hope of resisting “by intercommunication” the reactionary violence embedded in capitalist democracy (also known as the dictatorship of capital). Tolerance implies that we can achieve lasting progressive social change, all without serious social conflict, and especially without social or socialist revolution. Of that kind of “tolerance,” I remain firmly intolerant.
 Jason Linkins and Ryan Grimm, “Mike Pence Dodges Criticism by Calling Critics ‘Intolerant.’ That Dog Won’t Hunt.”
 On Ellwood, see Stephen Turner, “A Life in the First Half-Century of Sociology: Charles Ellwood and the Division of Sociology,” in Craig Calhoun, ed., Sociology in America: A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 115-54; See also, http://www.asanet.org/about/presidents/Charles_Ellwood.cfm
 Charles Ellwood, “Intolerance,” Papers and Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Society 19 (1925): 1–14. It is also available online (with a few possibly OCR-related typos, including a reference to the Klan as having “trillions” of members).
 See, for instance, James R. Grossman, “The New History Wars,” New York Times, September 1, 2014,
 Michael Lienesch, “Abandoning olutolution: The Forgotten History of Antievolution Activism and the Transformation of American Social Science,” Isis 103 (December 2012): 687–709.
 Freedom Guard, “Our History and Purpose”